“My daughter loves to collect people,” a fellow mom once told me proudly. The world would call her daughter an extrovert, a 13-year-old child who loves to spend almost all her time with friends or acquaintances. An outspoken, cheerful, friendly, and popular child, she is part of many groups in her school, participates in numerous activities, and has many friends in her neighbourhood too.
In contrast, my daughter, aged 12, needs a whole chunk of time for herself every day, and has one or two good friends. She takes time to fit into groups, and while she needs her daily dose of social interactions, she also requires her ‘me time’ to recharge. She is what one would call an ambivert, a person with a balance of outgoing and introspective qualities.
But I often wonder why so many parents and schools constantly expect children to be outspoken, extroverted, outgoing, and expressive. You do not have to be a people’s person to truly understand people and to make meaningful connections with them.
“I define myself and my daughter as introverts because (while) we find social interactions pleasant and fun, it gets tiring beyond a point,” says Charuvi Srivasthava, parent to two children a Bengaluru-based parent to two 12-year-old children. “For my son, on the other hand, meeting people is always energising and refreshing. He is an extrovert but I sometimes wonder if the fall will be harder if and when he’s forced not to have social interaction. I feel that loneliness is easier handled by an introvert although it hurts everyone.”
There are many other children who prefer to keep to themselves and process experiences a little differently. In a world that seems to largely favour the extroverts, it is important to understand and value the child whom the world calls an introvert.
Introverts have many strengths. They display great coping mechanisms, are self-sufficient, observational, and have the ability to read the room before making a move. They have strong observational skills and are self-sufficient and thoughtful. Interestingly, they can be outspoken and strong-willed too.
There are no pure extroverts or introverts
For a long time, it worried me that my daughter was not a people magnet. I worried about what she would do if she were lonely and simply couldn’t find a way to make and keep friends. Also, I had always believed that extroverts did better at work and in social settings. Don’t extroverts know how to muscle their way out of situations, schmooze the right people, and survive?
In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, author Susan Cain uses many examples to debunk this very notion. She mentions a famous study by management theorist Jim Collins, which shows that many of the best performing companies of the late twentieth century were run by leaders who were not extroverted or immediately charismatic but who were great leaders because they encouraged the right talent and created workspaces built on trust. In fact, today’s work culture is slowly moving towards inclusion and encouragement, with many employees calling out toxic work behaviours on social media.
Reading Cain’s book, I was surprised to learn there are shy extroverts and outspoken introverts, too. Some of these introverts even became actors and performers. In fact, Cain mentions how American activist Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her bus seat for a white man in 1955, was known by family and friends to be an introvert.
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Carolyn Wilson, an Indian mom based in Kuala Lumpur, has a 16-year-old son, is a mother to a 16-year-old son and she believes that he displays many characteristics of an introvert but has built many long-lasting friendships.“He doesn’t feel uncomfortable with crowds and doesn’t avoid them,” she says. “But he is happy doing his own thing or to just observe people from a distance. I think that one of his strengths is that he takes time to observe people and make friends. I often get feedback from teachers that he speaks less but when he speaks, there is more depth in his thoughts as he listens to everyone and takes time to observe and also he knows how to make people notice him though he is an introvert. He is the wall climbing team’s captain at school, and the leader of the math club. He takes initiative to prove his leadership skills. I keep telling him that in corporate world, visibility is very important and he has to learn to advocate for himself for which he replies that it's enough if his action speaks louder for himself.”
Our children can surprise us
A few months ago, Mona Acharya, a Coimbatore-based mother to a 14-year-old boy, was surprised when her son, who mostly loves spending time on his own, decided to contest for the post of house captain in his school. “He is mostly in his world and would not even wish his teachers in the beginning,” says Acharya. “But they encouraged him to contest for the post of house captain and he won!”
It is important for parents to understand and respect a child’s personality, says another parent in Mumbai, Avantika Srivastava: “I have always have been an introvert. As a kid, my parents wanted me to take part in any competition that involved stage presence, and I was happy winning essay competitions,” she recalls. But the push to be an extrovert greatly undermined her confidence. “For a long time I felt like it wasn't enough to just be me. I have two kids now, one an extreme introvert and the other extreme extrovert. I try to be conscious of how I parent them and I encourage hobbies and interests that are more suited to their personalities. Irrespective of the personality tag, each kid is different and it is our job as parents to ensure that our kids are comfortable and confident in themselves.”
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The emergence of the ambivert, who has both the traits of an introvert and an extrovert, is an interesting one. Children are so much more than personality tests or labels. Our reverence for the alpha status blinds us to how unique and different our children are and how their personalities can shift, evolve and constantly amaze us.
Shweta Sharan is a freelance journalist who lives in Mumbai